Hey, Present You: Future You would like a word
I love to read every article about procrastination that I come across online. With empathy for my fellow procrastinators worldwide, I will always be irresistibly tempted to click on it. Indeed every good thing you want to achieve requires nailing down the procrastination problem: exercising, meditating, writing a book, being a better parent. Even something small like writing this newsletter on the subject turned into a mise en abyme. It was on my to do list for weeks, and was constantly delayed.
I really like what Tim Urban wrote in this famous piece about the “procrastination matrix”:
I banked on Future Tim’s real-world existence for my most important plans, but every time I’d finally arrive at a time when I thought I would find Future Tim, he was nowhere to be found — the only person there would be stupid Present Tim. That’s the thing that really sucks about Future You — whenever time finally gets to him, he’s not Future You anymore, he’s Present You, and Present You can’t do the tasks you assigned to Future You … So you do what you always do — you re-delegate them to Future You, hoping that next time time catches up with Future You, he actually exists.
How many times have I rescheduled something and decided I’d let Future Me handle that for me? Countless times. And yes, it’s very annoying that Future Me invariably ends up being Present Me, usually with no more time, no more courage, no more special abilities than Past Me.
But this newsletter is not another piece to help you find out what kind of procrastinator you are, or to give you tips on how to stop procrastinating. No, what I want to focus on is the political, economic and sociological aspects of this issue. In fact the relationship between Present You and Future You will determine your future. And it’s not just about psychology: it’s also an economic and political subject.
The case I would like to make here is that your ability to have empathy for Future You—to see, understand, negotiate with, and love Future You—is becoming even more important in today’s (and tomorrow’s) world of work. Read along.
Psychology and sociology: a chicken-and-egg problem
Finding the right balance between living in the present moment (and finding pleasure in the now) and delaying instant gratification (controlling impulse) to take your future self into consideration has long been regarded as a key feature for a happy life. The right balance will be different from person to person. And it may be hard to find: some people may sacrifice the present too much to live entirely in the future. Others may be unable to save any money and sacrifice the future for the present. Of course, depending on personality, situation, addiction, and culture, your choices to favour Present You or Future You will differ widely.
For a long time, the subject was mostly tackled by psychologists. Since the 1970s, many of them have done research on our ability to delay instant gratification. One large-scale study conducted by Stanford scientists paved the way for all future research on the subject. The idea behind this research was that our ability to delay instant gratification is a predictor of future success. In other words, the better you are at waiting (taking Future You into account), the more successful you will be.
The study is now often referred to as the “marshmallow test experiment”. Psychologist Walter Mischel aimed to study the conditions that promote delay of gratification. To do that he (and his colleagues) designed an experiment in which young children were asked to choose between getting a small treat immediately (a cookie or marshmallow) or getting a larger treat (more cookies and marshmallows) after a longer wait (for the return of the scientist conducting the experiment). At any time during the wait, the children could signal that they wanted to “give up” and get the small treat. The most patient children managed to resist the temptation of the immediate treats much longer and got the larger treats.
The experiment became iconic and there’s no denying its significance. It demonstrated the value of the ability to delay gratification. It showed that there are strategies (demonstrated by some children) to get better at waiting. It showed that those who developed these strategies for larger treats also developed them to get higher grades at school, become better students and be more successful in later life (whatever success meant to each of them). Many other researchers undertook to expand on Mischel’s research. For example, psychologist Edelgard Wufert (a woman), adapted the experiment to teenagers and found that students who could wait longer for their pocket money had higher grades and were less likely to smoke and get drunk.
But all of these psychologists failed to take sociology into account. That’s why the marshmallow test has been criticised profusely for several years now. Sociologists argue that you can’t ignore a child’s background because that background will impact whether or not he/she will be able to delay gratification. “Affluence—not willpower—seems to be what’s behind some kids’ capacity to delay gratification,”they say. It turns out rich kids are significantly better at the Marshmallow test than poorer ones.
More recent studies showed that it isn’t your ability to delay gratification that leads to better outcomes, instead this ability is shaped by your background. Therefore it’s the background that’s the best predictor of long-term success. Indeed, a child who’s been mistreated by his/her parents, who grows up in a climate of fear and violence, will rationally develop a preference for short-term choices. If you don’t know what tomorrow is made of, if the word of the adults around you is not worthy of trust, then it’s safer (and more rational) to take whatever treat you can have now. These children do not trust the promise made to them. Some of them have every reason not to trust it as they’ve already been betrayed by life (and people) countless times. Life just doesn’t hold as many guarantees: “there might be food in the pantry today, but there might not be tomorrow, so there is a risk that comes with waiting”.
Sociology determines psychology probably more than the other way around. At least there are quite a few scholars today who say past psychology studies are undergoing a “replication crisis”. In the particular case of the marshmallow test, it’s been shown that the ability to delay gratification was not a predictor of future success if you took the parents’ background into account. Self-control alone won’t help you overcome dramatic economic and social disadvantages.
What this sociology vs psychology chicken-and-egg conundrum shows is that the question of the relationship between Present You and Future You is shaped by your environment, by institutions, by the economy. A stable, democratic, free, and affluent society will empower more people to find a healthier balance between instant and future gratification. You can picture Future You when the context is safe and stable. Conversely, if you live in a context of war or plague, Future You is so uncertain (your chances of dying are high) that it breaks that relationship. There’s no reason to delay anything in that context.
Why you need to invite Future You at the table now
The relationship between Present You and Future You used to be of interest to psychologists more than to politicians and economists. But today it’s mostly tackled by behavioural economists, interested in finding ways to help nudge people into saving more, exercising more, eating less, and doing things that can help preserve the planet. In fact that relationship is more an economic and political matter today than it was a few decades ago.
I believe your ability to invite Future You at the table will be more and more important in the future. Let me illustrate that with two different cases:
The typical salaried worker of GM from the 1960s to 1990s had good wages that made it easier to purchase a home, a car, and save money for his children’s university. The “bundle” he got from his job (it was mostly men in GM factories) included a good pension, so he didn’t even have to worry much about saving. If he had an accident or was ill, he would get healthcare and revenues. He didn’t really have to think too much about his career either because the more senior he got, the better his pay. And he could spend his entire career doing one job (sometimes at one company). Basically his “bundle” and all the institutions created in the 20th century (social security, healthcare, pensions, etc), made sure his future self could not be entirely ignored.
The typical knowledge worker of the 2020s may have relatively good revenues, but she doesn’t know what’s in store for her, careerwise. The skills she can sell on the market today may become worthless by 2030. She could be automated out of her current job. The pension she can expect to receive is far less generous that what her parents got when they retired. She knows she must save a lot of what she earns (but it’s so hard!) She can’t buy her home because real estate prices in the big city where she lives have risen insanely. Should she develop new skills to transition to another job? Should she take on more insurance?
You see where I’m getting at, don’t you? What I refer to as the “unbundling of jobs” and the period of transitions and transformations we are going through bring about a paradigm shift when it comes to the relationship between Present You and Future You. In the second half of the 20th century, that relationship was taken care of by social institutions (social security and our pension systems, our jobs, the firm). Now things are far more uncertain. And we live much longer too. Unless we expand or reinvent these institutions, Present You will have to think a lot more about Future You. Or else Future You will really be in trouble.
As the linear careers of the past are fast disappearing, it’s become more important to build a personal brand, to put together a portfolio of online traces that will make your reputation, to develop new skills to transition into new jobs, to focus on long-term goals as much as short-term ones (I once recorded a podcast in French on that exact subject). You have to constantly have to invite Future You at the table to discuss your choices. Your firm used to help a lot with handling the relationship with Future You. Not anymore. Nobody but Present You can take care of Future You when it comes to career and money.
Little by little the social protection (in particular pension) systems built in the 20th century cover fewer people or cover people less fully. In short, you have to save more for Future You. It was a decision that was made for you—the contributions you had to make to the pension system. Now you have to decide everyday how much you save, how you invest and how you can look after Future You. Becoming financially savvy is probably a more important skill than ever. (That’s why I believe a company like Vestpod that aims to help women become more financially savvy has a critical mission).
Even more importantly, reconciling Future You and Present You is critical not just for you, but it can also help you show more empathy towards others. “Our future self is a close ‘other’ that isn’t much different from a close relative. Being able to heed the needs and feelings of our future selves may very well be related to our ability to heed the needs and feelings of other family members, close friends and everyone else.” Self worth is not timeless. Self worth is the ability to establish a continuity between the different versions of you, and have compassion for each. (I liked this science fiction novel titled The Psychology of Time Travel whose plot was premised on the idea that the different versions of you could sit at the same table, literally).
Here are a few ideas on how to improve the relationship between Present You and Future You:
Visualise Future You using apps that make you look older (AgingBooth, FaceApp, Oldify, etc). Yes, it’s artificial, but it does make you think about Future You for a moment.
Write letters to your past selves and your future selves. It’s an interesting exercise.
Use commitment devices to fight the “instant gratification monster”.
Spend time with people of different ages: you will identify with older people and they can teach you to save more and think about Future You.
Take care of Future You in your daily routine (get better at managing your inbox, have a regular fitness routine, etc)
Think about what you need in terms of insurance (the French self-employed have Wemind to help them figure out what they need).
Study the basics of wealth management, starting with media like Vestpod.
My new book 100 idées innovantes pour recruter des talents, et les faire grandir (Vuibert), written with Jeremy Clédat will be released on March 24 🚀 (English version of the book available in June). You can have a look at a few pages from the book here. Virus permits, I’ll be in Paris for the release of my book. If you want a signed copy, a chat, and a drink, come to the Librairie Eyrolles at 6:30pm on March 26! You need to subscribe here.
My Welcome to the Jungle white paper about women in the energy industries is now online (in French)! ⚡ “Industrie cherche ingénieurEs pour sauver la planète” 🌪️
I published new Welcome to the Jungle articles this week: a new interview about gender equality in industry: Parité : “On ne progresse qu’en mesurant” (in French), “Les biais du coronavirus” (in French).
I had this article published on Equal Times: “Pourquoi l’artisanat est l’avenir du travail. Et ce que cela signifie pour les organisations et les individus” (in French), which was translated into English (by Equal Times).
A few weeks ago I was part of a panel with a sociologist about working and ageing. Ouishare’s Solène Manouvrier wrote an article about it: “Travailler à la vie, travailler à la mort !”.
Denis Maillard wrote a fantastic presentation of my book Du Labeur à l’ouvrage: “Du labeur industriel à l’ouvrage artisanal : quel nouveau régime de travail ?”
Content related to this week’s newsletter:
🗞️ “Sacrifice The Present For The Future Or The Future For The Present?”, Medium, November 2016.
🗞️ “The Unbundling of Jobs and What it Means for the Future of Work”, Medium, May 2018.
🗞️ “The 100-Year Life: Living and Working in an Age of Longevity by Lynda Gratton & Andrew Scott”, Welcome to the Jungle “must-read”, 2018.
🎙️ “Comment vivre de son activité d'indépendant tout en y mettant du sens ?”, podcast “Vécus”, Ticket for Change, 2019.
🗞️ “The many benefits of cross-generational mentoring”, ebook Welcome to the Jungle, January 2020.
🗞️ “To Achieve Your Goals, Lump and Slice”, Lee Anne Fennell, Behavioral Scientist, February 2020.
🗞️ “The Procrastination Matrix”, Tim Urban, Wait But Why, March 2015.
🗞️ “Why Rich Kids Are So Good at the Marshmallow Test”, Jessica McCrory Calarco, The Atlantic, June 2018.
🗞️ “Psychology’s Replication Crisis Can’t Be Wished Away”, Ed Yong, The Atlantic, March 2016.
😔 “Boredom is but a window to a sunny day beyond the gloom”, Neel Burton, Aeon, February 2020: “What, exactly, is boredom? It is a deeply unpleasant state of unmet arousal: we are aroused rather than despondent, but, for one or more reasons, our arousal cannot be met or directed..”
👗 “What Really Happens When You Donate Your Clothes—And Why It’s Bad”, Taylor Bryant, Nylon, February 2018: “Americans buy five times more clothing than they did in the 1980s(…) Fast fashion has helped us build up a more intense addiction to buying clothing and, at the same time, it’s helped us really elevate the throwaway culture”.
🗞️ “The ‘Hidden Talent’ That Determines Success”, David Robson, BBC Worklife, October 2017: are you familiar with the concept of “cultural intelligence” (CQ)? “According to the latest findings, a high CQ could be crucial in a wide range of careers”.
That’s all for this week. I can’t urge you enough to look after Future You more. In the immediate future, it means washing your hands more, not touching your face, avoiding meeting lots of people 🙏